Benghazi Catching Up with the Digital Age: New Tech StartUps Aim to Renew Economy – Al Marsad

As Benghazi recovers from a protracted struggle against forces of terrorism that culminated in the victory of the Libyan National Army (LNA) and the restoration of security and stability, the youth of the city are racing with time to catch up with the pace of progress in the world of hi-tech and information technology, and compensate what they have missed after a long period of disruption.

[Benghazi, 17 June 2019] – New tech projects in Benghazi are a sure sign of a renewed impetus of Libyan youth to overcome the obstacles of war and to once again participate in shaping the future of their city and country. With the global improvements in the telecommunications network and internet, as confirmed by the Freedom on the Net report of 2018, “the quality of service for those who can access the internet has improved recently”, Benghazi is beginning to experience how such tech improvements can be leveraged.

New Tech Hubs

Over the last three years, Benghazi witnessed the launching of several tech initiatives. These projects cover a variety of fields and specializations. One of them is a service that seeks to develop creative solutions to bridge the gap that exists between public and private sectors, normalize daily life of Libyan citizens, improve public services in Benghazi, and create employment opportunities for job seekers. The initiatives include educational and awareness-raising projects that target fresh graduates and children. A number of training courses have been organized that seek to transform the passive user of technology into a critical and active user of the latest tools in communication science. They also seek to provide young people with skills that increase their chances in the labor market and enable them to launch their own startups that contribute to modern life.

The youth of Benghazi have developed several mobile apps from food delivery, transportation, to general counseling services. These new services provide comfort, efficiency, ease of access, and facilitate the lives of the residents in the eastern coast’s biggest city. The number of Internet users in Libya, according to Internet World statistics report, is estimated at 3,800,000 or about 58% of the population, of which Benghazi is approximately one million of this total.

Some of these new tech projects are profit-oriented, while others are non-profit ventures where their founders aim at transferring their experiences and passion to the largest component of society—the youth and children. Despite the challenges faced by non-profit projects, such as over-reliance in Libyan culture on printed information and difficult economic conditions, these projects, however, have gained the trust of both local businesses, philanthropic institutions, and angel investors abroad who fund startups in the field of technology and entrepreneurship. We have also witnessed positive collaboration from different educational institutions in Benghazi in several events that were held recently.

Women’s Empowerment

She Codes, a non-profit organization, is one of the new breed of active institutions that envision women’s empowerment as its main goal. “There is a gap in gender representation in the hi-tech field and information technology; the prevailing social stereotype views this area as unsuitable for women,” she said. “This was confirmed by a survey conducted conduced by our team before launching the project,” said, Najla Almissalati, an electronics engineer and founder of She Codes.

“Our debut was in launching a training programme. The course focused on the basics of programming and information technology. After we posted the online registration form, we were shocked by the response—they were four times the number allowed in the training programme. This was the starting point for our team. We relied on our savings and personal relationships; even the trainers in the first session were volunteers. The training programme included cybersecurity, Android application design, backend and frontend applications, encryption, content creation, graphic design, as well as business management and marketing,” said Najla Almissalati.

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This training programme, although intensive, does not entitle the trainee after graduation to work in the field of graphic design or applications’ development for example, but will definitely open the door to interest in various fields, after learning the basics of these disciplines through a training curricula that merges theoretical and practical know how. The trainee has the option to pursue advanced courses in the programme.

New graduates of the programme are the most important segment targeted by the project. Typically high school graduates have to wait for almost one year before getting officially registered as freshman students. This pre-enrolment time lapse can be positively utilized, according to Najla Almissalati, because “it simply gives students an opportunity to test several fields before choosing their university majors. We have found that the majority of female trainees belong to this particular segment.”

Children today spend considerable time on video games and smartphones, and tech experts do not view this as a dilemma, unlike most parents, because these technologies are appropriate for the digital age they live in. The aim is to teach children not just to be passive users but go beyond the monitor screen and learn to create and design new games. “The next generation must be involved in the development of information technology; not just become mere end users and consumers. The popularity of the courses and programmes offered by She Codes reflects the awareness among young women in Benghazi of the requirements of the third millennium”, and “although the journey is long, we have already embarked on it,” said Almissalati.

Youth Entrepreneurship

The Benghazi Youth for Technology and Entrepreneurship (BYTE) is another project that was launched with the support of Bokra Organization and the Civil Initiatives Libya. The project was a three-day event consisting of training programmes on hardware, software, and networks. It included discussion sessions and sharing experiences among the participants. The event was attended by more than 450 young men and women from the city of Benghazi. Benghazi is a city experiencing a new period of stability after the defeat of terrorism, and there was a desperate need for youth activities.

“It is unfamiliar for man to have a project of this nature in Libya, the concept is to transform the BYTE initiative into a technology-based social entrepreneurship business where some of its aspects could be profit-oriented to cover the operational costs necessary for its own sustainability,” said the chairman and founder of BYTE and communication engineer, Younis Najm.

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He said, “We pursue a variety of activities that seek to create a hi-tech community in the city through partnerships with public and private educational institutions and think tanks, on local and international levels, to promote the formation of an ecosystem in Libya.”

“BYTE’s activities cover the areas of youth, technology and entrepreneurship,” Najm said. “We observe annually the worldwide celebration of the Arduino Community Day. Last year, the event was organized in partnership with the Faculty of Electrical Engineering at the University of Benghazi. The ceremony included a mini artificial intelligence exhibition and also children-oriented activities by Arduino as part of a project that teaches children to deal with the Arduino system and open-source platforms,” Najm continued.

BYTE’s most important partnerships are with the William Davidson Institute, University of Michigan, with whom they organized online distance learning and training courses in entrepreneurship. This project, considered as one of BYTE’s most successful initiatives, saw three courses being deployed last year. Each course consisted of 15 to 20 students, held of an entire semester at the BYTE offices in Benghazi, and was taught online by faculty members from the University of Michigan. This is a certified training course that granted a diploma in social entrepreneurship.

It is not just those interested in tech and entrepreneurship who benefit this programme, journalists and civil society members can also join the BYTE online training platform. The “Cyber Security for Journalists and Activists Project” was launched in partnership with the Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace (LWPP) and provides tools for civil society activists, human rights’ defenders, and journalists.

Furthermore, partnership with Connect Telecom, BYTE’S ION software training course enrolls fresh graduates from ICT colleges in Benghazi. “Our work team supervises the administration of this course which is presented at Connect Telecom lecture halls. Successful graduates of the programme are recruited by Connect Telecom after they complete the course successfully and fulfill of company requirements.” said Najm. Last year, BYTE facilitated recruitment of nine course trainees. This year it intends to launch Phase II of the programme, in addition to other initiatives.

The Future is Digital

With their eyes on the future, the ambitious young people in Benghazi are actively engaged in creative initiatives to lay the foundations of an alternative economy, consolidate confidence in youth, promote public, private and academic sectors contributions—and form hubs and incubators for technology and entrepreneurship programmes that meet youth aspirations for a better future.

These models are just examples of the capabilities that are being mobilized across different parts of Libya, and Benghazi is an exciting case study in this emerging trend where its youth represent a source of immense optimism not just for this city but also for the rest of Libya.

These tech initiatives are creating a vital space for progress and modernity, utilizing technology as a means of creativity and a tool for the transformation of the country.

© Al Marsad English. 2019.